Into the Blue

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					Into the Blue

       Shannon Salter




Writer’s comment: At first, I perceived this story, which narrates
my skydiving excursion last year, as somewhat of a tragedy. I
achieved the ultimate high, which, like all highs, was followed by a
low, by a descent back into normality. Falling out of an airplane
was always an adventure I wanted to have. But in the last couple of
years it came to symbolize a lot for me. It meant escaping the
mundane, the ordinary, the everyday routine in a society that I had
grown increasingly critical of. And I did escape, but only for a
minute. Now I am beginning to really understand that life isn’t
about striving for highs. It’s not about transcending the ordinary.
It’s about the everyday, about the relationships we have, the things
we experience, what we see, what we learn. As I think my story
reflects, it’s about appreciating the journey, about enjoying the
ride.
                                                    —Shannon Salter

Instructor’s comment: Shannon wrote this piece for the creative
nonfiction assignment in Writing Seminar I. Initially, Shannon
drafted a literal account of her skydiving experience. With each
revision, however, she uncovered new layers of meaning, made
unexpected connections between images and events, present and
past. In this riveting narrative, Shannon transforms the sky and
ocean into rich metaphors, each standing for the other. Entering
“into the blue”—whether through skydiving or driving—triggers
memory and enacts discovery, revealing the narrator’s desire to
overcome fear, to escape restrictive social norms. Weaving crisp
dialogue and precise description, Shannon crafts a story that moves
with ease between scenes of fierce intensity and passages of quiet
contemplation.
                —Brian Komei Dempster, Rhetoric and Composition



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                                                          Into the Blue




I
     sit cross-legged in the passenger’s seat as we drive home from
    the middle of nowhere, watching the sun descend into the
    desert’s evening sky. My adrenaline is still soaring; I can still
feel it. Jon and I have just jumped out of an airplane from fourteen
thousand feet in the air, falling at 140 miles per hour. The period of
free fall was approximately one minute in length; it felt like a
fleeting moment and an entire lifetime all at once.
     During the drive there I had asked Jon, “What do you think it’s
going to feel like?”
     He leaned over the steering wheel, allowing his damp back to
cool off. It was the end of August in southern California, and we
were headed inland. Even with the windows down sweat seeped
into our clothes. His eyes narrowed. I could only tell because I had
a side-view of him; his eyes were otherwise concealed behind dark
sunglasses that were rounder at the bottom than on top and framed
with slim metallic rims. He removed his left hand from the steering
wheel and thoughtfully stroked his wiry red goatee.
     “Like blowing coke and eating mushrooms at the same time,”
Jon said, grinning into the rearview mirror, his eyes shifting
towards me to assess my reaction.
     We both have a deep appreciation for altered states of mind
and body, Jon much more than I because he has lived longer and is
more disillusioned than I am. Jon has made statements like
“Sobriety is the devil” and meant it. I don’t question Jon’s self-
professed poetic license, but I do try not to regard everything he
says as a true or complete reflection of his character.
      Jon’s a painter. Oil on canvas is his medium of release, of
creativity, of self-expression, of whatever you want to call it. One
of his recent creations depicts his own hands, marked with bar
codes and a series of long numbers by which he is identified.
There’s an assemblage of tiny squares, a grid board that represents
each of us as straight lines on an empty square.
     Jon is a creative mind engaged in what he views as a dull
reality. Although he carries an air of slight morbidity, he does not
exist in a perpetual state of suffering. He knows what moves him,
what makes him happy, like his fantastic music collection of
several hundred albums of many genres, stacked alphabetically in
his bedroom. He’s recounted times in his teenage years when he’s

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Shannon Salter

sat curled in his closet for hours, blaring The Cure, his favorite
band, absorbed by the wailing injured lyrics that only Robert Smith
can make so cool. Jon also loves fine food, cooking and eating it.
Seared salmon with plump asparagus spears are a staple at his
house. Everything is always cooked in pounds of butter and
accompanied by bottomless glasses of red wine, never white. He
has a peculiar but charming habit of eating with his fingers, even at
fancy restaurants.
      “It tastes better that way,” he casually explained the first time I
gave him an inquisitive stare. Clearly undaunted by a stupid social
norm, he looked up from a Caesar salad that he was methodically
picking away at, popping croutons and romaine lettuce into his
mouth. The thing is, he does it in such a way that it looks entirely
correct. I’ve often found myself feeling silly using utensils when
we’re eating together. So I sometimes set down my fork as well
and use my thumb and index finger the way Jon does. It does taste
better.
      And Jon really sees things. I remember lying in bed one
morning, watching the morning sun filter through the murky glass
window and cast her yellow haze over the room. We were talking
about colors.
      “What color would you say that wall is?” Jon asked, nodding
at the blank wall in front of us.
      I fixated my gaze on it for a few moments. I wasn’t sure what
he was implying. “White. It’s a white wall.”
      “Nope,” Jon replied with a hint of amusement in his voice. He
lit a joint that he had rolled the night before and smiled down at
me. I lay with my head beneath and to the left of his chin, my arm
draped over his chest. I could feel his scruffy facial hair scratching
against my forehead, a feeling that I can never get enough of.
      “I see green, an olive green where the shadow is cast. And
down there, it fades into a strip of gray and I’d say lavender at the
bottom.” He held the joint up to his lips and inhaled until his lungs
were filled to capacity. I felt his chest rise. After an extended
pause, his chest sunk down again and a large cloud of light-gray
smoke rose above us, sprawling outward as it climbed towards the
ceiling. “You can’t paint a white wall.”


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                                                          Into the Blue
     I tossed the lesson around in my mind, staring hard at the wall
and contemplating the defined shades that emerged from obscurity
and presented themselves before the painter’s eye. Indeed, the wall
was not white at all.
     The moment dissolved as Jon lifted his foot off the gas pedal
and our car bumped over scattered potholes. His eyes were focused
intently on the road ahead. I squinted into the blazing afternoon
sun that filtered through his window and covered his face in
shadow.
     “I think I am going to feel like Lucifer being cast down from
heaven,” Jon concluded. His smile retracted, and his lips resumed
their usual somber seriousness. He dragged his fingers through his
tangled red-orange hair and tugged at the soft curls that grew in the
back. It lay flat while his hand was in it but promptly sprang back
into its upright position, the way long, unkempt grass does after
being pressed down under the weight of a footstep.
     I leaned my head back against the seat and let it loosely
wobble around atop my neck. Closing my eyes, I thought about the
songs we had chosen to be played in our skydive videos. I think
they both spoke to an aspect of our nature and what our excursion
was all about: we were two people, bored in a lackluster reality,
searching for the ultimate high, the ultimate escape. Jon had
chosen a Nine Inch Nails’ song. It was hard rock, raging with
heated hostility.
     Mine was a Pixies’ song called “Wave of Mutilation.” It wasn’t
the punk-rock album version, but a slower, more melodic version.
The keyboard, drums, and guitar come in first and then the singer’s
voice starts off in a low-pitch whisper, his words drawn out and
bleeding into one another. “Cease to exist, given my goodbye.
Drive my car into the ocean.” He sings the word “ocean” as if it
has four syllables, bringing his voice up and down, and varying the
volume. “You think I’m dead, but I sailed away on a wave of
mutilation, wave of mutilation.” He continues repeating the word
“wave” the same way he sings “ocean.” You hear a certain relief in
his voice, as if he’s finally taken a deep breath after running a race
for years, having always been gasping for air with no period of
rest. The song takes me places.


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Shannon Salter
     As soon as I got my driver’s license, morning, sunset, and
midnight drives down Pacific Coast Highway became part of my
regular routine. I almost always drove with the windows down,
feeling and tasting the salty coastal breeze. The speakers blasted a
variety of crucial tunes from The Beatles, Radiohead, and Nirvana.
Sometimes I didn’t listen to music at all and became entranced by
the steady cadence of crashing waves and the wind’s commanding
pulse. Either way, I was entirely lost in the drive. Left to its own
impulses, my mind drifted around to faraway places and times.
     When I was in high school, those drives meant forgetting
about all my friends’ meaningless drama that I could never relate
to. I let go of the depressing thoughts about a pathetic superficiality
that governed the lives of everyone around me. I forgot about the
masses, which I served after school and on weekends at a coffee
shop. I forgot about their oblivion and idiocy. I forgot how they
were unwilling to engage in simple human interaction, rarely
responding to my gracious, “Hello, how are you?” before rudely
demanding no-foam cappuccinos and the like. I stopped explaining
over and over that “a cappuccino is espresso and foam” and that
what they wanted was “a latte, made with milk.” After several
months I realized that, in their minds, they were always right and
that they did not appreciate my efforts to correct them. I forgot
about endless arguments with my dad about how hard my angry,
indifferent attitude made it to love me. And I forgot about how I
thought I didn’t care because I was so angry and indifferent. I
forgot about my parents’ endless badgering when I refused to
attend church, even after I explained to them, “I simply feel
uncomfortable there because I don’t believe in your god.” Those
drives had a way of making all the bullshit slip away and replacing
it with a comfortable serenity.
     “Jon,” I said, my eyes still closed, “I’m glad I chose ‘Wave of
Mutilation.’ ”
     “It’s an awesome song,” he agreed.
     I paused for a few moments and then told him, “My favorite
part of the drive down PCH is this spot where the cliff curves
really abruptly, and you look out over the ocean. The waves are
crashing over the rocks and there’s just never-ending blue and a
strip of golden beach.

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                                                         Into the Blue

     “Yea. I think I know the spot,” he said. My eyes were still
closed, but I could sense that he had turned towards me.
     “But then you look at the other side of PCH – highway lanes in
front of leveled coastal hills. It used to be all beautiful canyons
with so much wildlife. Now it’s a bunch of custom homes, and a
hotel that they are building,” I reflected. I thought back to my high
school drives again. I could never help but consider what a pale
system ours is in comparison to the ocean’s, to its perfect
equilibrium.
     “I always wanted to just keep driving,” I continued, “straight
off the cliff – just shut my eyes and drive into the blue, away from
all the ugliness.”
     “To ride the El Nino?” Jon asked, quoting another line in the
song, passion flaring up in his voice, “To just fuck all of this?”
     “To just fly off the highway,” I whispered, folding my arms in
my lap, envisioning the scene that I had so many times before.
     “Just fly,” Jon echoed, tapping the steering wheel.
     Upon arriving at the Skydive zone, Jon and I signed our lives
away on a dozen different black lines without hesitation and were
quickly suited up. I was introduced to Lenny, the professional
whom I would be securely fastened to, and a photographer that
would jump beside me with a video camera attached to his helmet.
They were both ecstatically energetic, buzzing around like
miniature wind-up toys. Lenny was middle-aged, a little stocky,
and wore a long sandy-colored mustache that curled out on the
ends like a pirate’s.
     “This is what we do, you know? I get paid to jump out of
airplanes. And I love it. I’ll never get enough of this shit.” Lenny
spoke in a far-off voice, like he was lost somewhere in his own
reality. I asked, “Have you already jumped today?”
     “Five times. And now we’ll go up and down with you guys,
and then I’ll probably do a couple more this evening before calling
it a day. It’s some living, that’s for sure.”
     “I’ve always wanted to do this.”
     “Right on. And you’re going to want to do it a thousand more
times.”



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Shannon Salter
      A man with long, greasy blonde hair carefully articulated
directions. “Arch your backs when you exit the plane. This is
going to be the ride of your life. This is it. Enjoy it, man!”
     Within minutes the clamorous drone of the airplane’s engines
was burrowing into my ears, rattling my skull. Our instructor’s
words, “This is it,” echoed in my consciousness. My heart raced
faster with each thousand feet that the plane ascended, feeling like
it might beat out of my chest. It was like driving down the strip of
PCH just prior to the bend in the cliff, envisioning the expanse of
water that I fantasized about driving into before I arrived at it. But
that was only fantasy. I always knew that the reality of driving my
car into the ocean would not be nearly as romantic. The moments
of airborne freedom would surely be ruined by thoughts of my
impending collision with the ground, as I probably wouldn’t reach
the water at all, and my gruesome death. But I was really going to
jump out of this airplane.
     The air temperature cooled dramatically as we climbed to our
summit in the vacant sky. My head was clouded both from the
pressure fluctuation and from anticipation of what I was going to
do. Peering through the rectangular glass window, I watched the
earth below fade into a smeared mass of lines and colors, no longer
confining me, no longer defining the space in which I could exist.
     I watched wispy clouds fly at us out of the infinite blue we
were in. I thought about all my time spent in the ocean. As a child,
I spent most hot summer days at the beach, in the water. My
parents tell me stories about my inborn desire to be in the ocean.
     “Even when you were just a toddler,” they tell me, “ you
wanted to be alone in the waves. You wouldn’t stand next to us.
You darted from our side, galloping into the water. We worried
about the water splashing over you. But you were never afraid,
laughing and throwing yourself into the crashing waves. It made
you so happy.”
      Once, when I was ten, I got caught in a riptide. All of a
sudden, I found myself sucked out into deep water, where I would
never have voluntarily ventured. I never swam out to where I
couldn’t touch; I hated not feeling the ground beneath my feet.
There was a feeling of safety in being able to clench the wet sand
between my toes. I peered down and couldn’t see the bottom. Only

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                                                           Into the Blue

darkness confronted me from below. I panicked, flailing my arms
erratically and emitting high-pitched screams, my voice shaking
with horrific uncertainty. That was the only time I felt afraid of the
ocean, afraid of its unfathomable power, afraid because I didn’t
feel at one with it, but that it opposed me.
     The lifeguard was there in minutes, which seemed like hours.
He wrapped the orange flotation device around me and towed my
limp body to safety. I was rescued. I sat on the beach, rolling my
wet body in the heated sand and letting the sun’s love warm and
comfort me. I drank Hansen’s cherry-vanilla soda and ate slices of
apples and cheese. After a couple hours, I was ready to return to
the water, not intimidated by my recent endangerment.
     Watching the jumpers that preceded me fall from the door and
plummet out of sight, I did feel afraid. One by one they became
lost in the grandeur of empty space. At last, I gazed over the brink
of stability with a terrified fascination that I could never have
imagined. My eyes widened as they became acquainted with an
infinite cobalt vastness, their moisture sucked away by the rushing
wind’s vacuum force.
     A long, resounding scream involuntarily sprung from inside
me. Every cell in my body clinched and tingled, my swollen heart
pulsating. I could barely feel myself. I turned to blow a kiss to Jon,
who was smiling wider than I’d ever seen before. Then I blew one
to the camera. I inhaled.
     At three, my body sprung from the edge. Tumbling headfirst
into nothingness, I saw the air, then the plane’s underside, then my
dangling orange Converse. I thrust my arms back, and they
assumed their position like a majestic pelican stretching her
massive wings before nose-diving to skim the water’s surface and
capture an unsuspecting fish. I had no sensation of falling; I was in
flight. I exhaled.
      I was hurled into the fantastic abyss, the weightless oblivion
where nothing existed except the sky and myself. The only sound
was the hollering wind that gushed passed my ears and seemingly
through my airborne body, like the wind that surged into my car
when I was racing around the winding coastal highway.
     “That was it,” I shout to Jon, over the noise of wind rushing
through the car windows. “That is what it would feel like if I kept

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Shannon Salter

driving, if I just did it. That was flying off the highway, away from
the sawed-off canyon hills, into the ocean. That was the moment I
slam my foot on the gas pedal, the moment when my cars’ tires
leave the ground and veer over the cliff’s edge!”
     The sky unleashed its force upon me, pulling my skin tightly
over my skeletal frame. But I was not broken. My body penetrated
the air as I glided through the awesome expanse of space.
      It was like feeling the waves crash over me, feeling the white
water swirl around and consume me. It was like being submerged
under a mile of ocean, dragged by its current to the bottom, but
able to breathe. I had completely relinquished control and
completely gained control in the same moment.
     At four thousand feet the trip of my life had to end. “Pull it!”
Lenny screamed, his deep voice rumbling in my ear.
     My fingers wrapped around the circular knob, and I tugged it
towards me. A sudden jerk followed, and my body was heaved
abruptly forward and then back in the moment that the chute was
unleashed. Straining my neck to look up and behind me, I watched
the pale sunlight filtering through the chute’s transparent purple
material. Objects on the ground assumed their form again as the
brown earth speckled with patches of dried grass grew larger. Jon
was already on the ground, frolicking around in what looked like a
drunken stupor. I floated slowly back to reality, floated down like a
piece of broken metal from a wrecked car descending to the ocean
floor.
     “Whoo! How do you feel, baby?” the photographer yelled,
scampering up next to me. He swiveled his hips around like he was
dancing and stuck his tongue out at me, focusing the camera lens
on my face.
     At first my legs quivered underneath me, becoming
reacquainted with solid ground. “I was flying,” I heard myself
murmur, still transfixed in mesmerized awe. “It was the most
fantastic feeling I have ever had. Damn. That was fucking unreal.
It was like driving my car into the ocean.”
     An uncommonly giddy Jon skipped towards me, and we
collided into one another. I threw my arms around his shoulders
and we laughed stupidly, both a little dazed. Jon’s untamed hair
stood nearly a foot high, like flames flickering atop his scalp. He

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                                                         Into the Blue
kind of looked like Lucifer. He definitely looked like he had just
blown coke and eaten mushrooms.
     “I feel so fucking high,” he gasped. His glossy cobalt eyes
were watering, and there were red impressions on his face from
where the goggles had been suctioned on.
     After a post-landing camera shot with Jon and I sporting an
enthusiastic thumbs-up, we were whisked off the field. We stripped
off the blue jumpsuits and, in minutes, found ourselves at the bar,
nursing our complementary beers. I guess the free beer after your
jump was a little something to help the comedown.
     During the first forty minutes of the drive home, Jon and I
spoke erratically to one another, spouting off vain attempts to
ascribe words to that feeling. Then our elated dialogue waned and
was replaced with a perplexed silence.
     “What now?” I wonder aloud, fully aware that I sound like a
young girl. “Do we go back to work and school, assimilate back
into the gray reality of our habitual routines?”
      “There will always be another high,” Jon says knowingly.
     I take a deep breath and nod my head, feeling somewhat
comforted. I roll the windows up, and the gushing wind is replaced
with a quiet stagnation. I turn the CD player on and lean back in
my seat, folding my arms behind my head. The Beatles begin
singing about a girl flying through the sky with diamonds as I stare
out the window at the desolate desert landscape.
     “There will always be another high.” I repeat. Then I think
silently to myself that there will also always be another low. But
there is no need to say what we both know.
     An hour passes and we enter Huntington Beach. A strip of
silver ocean is visible in the distance.
     “Jon,” I say, breaking our silence, “Do you know what grunion
are?”
     “The fish?” he responds, cocking his head to one side and
slightly narrowing his eyebrows. Jon is used to my random
assertions, this one having entered my head at the sight of silver
ocean reflecting the fading sunlight.
     “Yea, tiny silver fish. They come on to land to spawn, you
know. The entire population instinctively senses the most powerful
wave of the season, the highest wave of the highest tide.”

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Shannon Salter
     “How do they know that a higher wave won’t come?” Jon
interjects skeptically.
     “They just know,” I answer him, shaking my head in awe of
the little creatures. “It’s all about timing. They all feel for the right
time to go, all together. They let the wave carry them onto shore.
The males and females pair up and wiggle themselves into the
sand, twisting around in their tiny incision.”
     “Have you seen it?” Jon asks, turning to face me.
     “No. I’ve only heard about it. It’s always in the middle of the
night. The entire beach is covered in a metallic gleam – thousands
of grunion dancing in the moonlight. You can feel them slapping
against your feet; they’re everywhere. It only lasts a few minutes,
maybe half an hour at the most, long enough to deposit millions of
miniscule eggs,” I explain, my admiration of the natural
phenomenon wavering in my voice. “And then their mating
endeavors are over. They’re washed back to sea, back into the
blue.”
     “Cool,” Jon says, a boyish grin spreading atop his goatee.
“You know, we can dance on the beach and have our own mating
endeavors in the moonlight,” he adds, his boyish grin turning into a
mischievous smile.
     “Yes we can,” I said, flicking my hand through the back of his
hair that is still sticky with sweat.
     My eyes meet his gaze in the rearview mirror. He winks. I
smile. Then we sit back and become lost in our drive.




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